New Delhi: Be it Russia’s obsession with Raj Kapoor or China’s love for Aamir Khan’s Dangal, or Japan’s fascination with Rajinikanth, Indian movies have always found a following abroad. But it’s not always that one has songs composed for them.
One who did was Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehlavi, known to the world as the Marilyn Monroe of Bollywood, the Venus Queen of Indian Cinema or Madhubala.
Star of movies like Mughal-e-Azam, Mr and Mrs ’55, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Barsaat Ki Raat, Kala Pani and Howrah Bridge, Madhubala acted in more than 70 movies in a career spanning 22 years. She died at the tragically young age of 36, but not before captivating the world with her beauty and charm.
One person who was charmed by this screen goddess was Stelios Kazantzidis, a popular Greek singer, who fell in love with her after watching a movie of hers and crooned a passionate number that was dedicated to her. While it is unclear who wrote the lyrics, with some attributing them to him and some to Eftihis Papayiannapoulou, the song set in the rembetico/laiko genre of Greek music, is clearly a lover’s call for his lost beloved.
The Greek song, titled Mantoubala when translated in English says,
“I wish I could see you and then die, my dear.
My soul wants only this.
Since I lost you, I’m melting.
I cry out your name with pain,
Apart from celebrating Madhubala’s ethereal beauty, the song Mantoubala also became the first 1,00,000 seller in Greece.
Kazantzidis is remembered as the singer who was able to pen the “social and emotional upheaval” that Greeks experienced due to World War II and the civil war that followed. Greeks were heavily reliant on music to cope with their pain of exile and migration, and Kazantdizis emerged as the sole “rider in the rich tapestry of Greek music”. His use of the vowel ‘aa!’ while singing chilled people to the bone, and he was able to powerfully articulate deep pain via song. Kazantzidis died of cancer at the age of 70 in 2001.
Bonded by sadness
In a paper titled Hindi Films of the 50s in Greece: Memory of Interactions in a bygone era, Helen Abadzi explores Bollywood’s influence in Greece during the 1950s and 1960s, during which time its undisputed stars included Nargis and Madhubala.
What struck the Greeks most about Madhubala and her films was her portrayal of pain — also a reason why Nargis-starrer Mother India was such a favourite. Abadzi writes, “the ability of these heroines to express pain made the beautiful and haunting songs that they sang instant hits. It was only natural that the emotions of the poor Greeks would be expressed through those very same melodies.”
Despite the obvious language barrier, Greek audiences were drawn to films such as Mother India, Paapi, Aan, Awara and Shri 420, and in fact, more than 110 Greek songs have been inspired by Hindi songs.
Greece’s tryst with Bollywood
The rembetico genre goes way back to World War I, when Balkan and Turkish Greeks were forced to settle in slums on the outskirts of Athens and left to fend for themselves.
Coffee shops and hashish dens were witness to a novel way of singing urban blues. Traditionally, rembetico is played on instruments such as the bouzouki and tzouras. These songs told the tales of addiction, love, hope and injustice. A few years down the line, the rembetico transformed into laiko, which was reinvented by being incorporated into Greece’s pop music.
Around the same time, Greek popular culture was also at the brink of discovering Bollywood. Greek film importers bought Hindi films since they were cheap on the international market. Abadzi described that the economic condition of Greece was “bleak” in the 1950s. After World War II, Greece witnessed a communist insurgency that resulted in the death of many locals.
“An atmosphere of depression and mourning prevailed as people tried to rebuild their lives. One survival tactic was migration to larger cities and emigration to countries like Germany, which needed cheap labour. It was in that climate of desperation that Hindi movies made an indelible impression,” wrote Abadzi.
It was these bleak conditions that were made just a bit more bearable with entertainment courtesy Hindi cinema and its luminous stars, such as Madhubala.